What turns wandering thoughts into something worse?

October 13, 2021 – With all confinements and social distancing of pandemic, people have had a lot of time for themselves over the past year and a half. While some may have occupied their time with bread pastries or long walks, others may have felt they had too much time for themselves, too much time to think.

These experiences came with more depression and anxiety, which could be related to the same brain network supposed to support a winding mind, called network in default mode.

Scientists interested in this network wanted to understand how wandering thoughts can lead some people to a brooding state in which the same negative thoughts repeatedly resurface. To better understand these patterns, they recorded more than 2,000 thoughts spoken aloud by 78 study participants who did nothing but let their minds wander for 10 minutes.

Principal Investigator Jessica Andrews ‐ Hanna, PhD, Assistant Professor of psychology at the University of Arizona at Tucson, and his colleagues hoped that analyzing these consciousness stream thoughts might provide insight into how people get stuck in negative mental spirals.

They found that most participants thought of the present or the future in words that were neither particularly negative nor positive. Almost three-quarters of the thoughts were person-centered or imaginative.

Negativity breeds negativity

But investigators found an interesting pattern with negative thoughts. The more negative someone’s thoughts became, the more likely it was that their next idea was related to the previous one. In other words, negative thoughts created a chain reaction of more negative thoughts.

Positive thoughts, on the other hand, tended to be followed by completely independent ruminations, indicating real mental meanders. The diagram suggests that negativity tends to narrow the range of thoughts, while positivity tends to widen it during times when the mind is wandering.

The researchers also found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that negative thoughts that focused on yourself and the past were more likely to cause gloomy thoughts, while positive thoughts were less likely to arise.

It’s important to note that most of the study participants were young and educated and may have only said things they were comfortable with the researchers. And because the authors did not ask the participants about their moods, investigators were unable to associate specific thought patterns with any Mental Health conditions.

Although the conclusions, published in Scientific reports, do not of their own accord offer solutions for depression Where anxiety, they can offer a starting point for future research into how negative thought trains start – and perhaps how to derail them.

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